"Europe's history is rooted in migration"
What constitutes the identity of Europe? At a time when right-wingers and right-wing conservatives are rediscovering the "Christian Occident", fears of an Islamist threat are rife, and nationalist isolationist tendencies are also becoming visible within Europe, cultural historian and Christian philosopher Bernhard Braun gives a clear answer: "Studying European cultural history has shown me how essential and stimulating encounters and exchanges with foreigners are for every culture and every self-image."
In his book, now published by the German Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Die Herkunft Europas. Eine Reise zum Ursprung unserer Kultur – "The Origin of Europe. A Journey to the Origins of Our Culture", the cultural historian, who teaches in Innsbruck and Salzburg, invites readers on a wide-ranging and entertaining journey through the often surprising history of European culture and its eastern roots.
Braun combines aspects of religious history such as the emergence of Judaism, Christianity and Islam with developments in art, science and philosophy. He illuminates high eastern cultures such as the Sumerians, Persians and Ancient Egypt and shows how ideas of God and the afterlife, myths such as the virgin birth or the title "Son of God" migrate through the religions and persist to this day.
For example, notions of ascension arrived in the fifth century B.C. from Iranian sources to the Greek and then to the Christian world. Braun also describes the complicated development from polytheistic to monotheistic religions and from earthbound nature deities – the Sumerians knew 3,000 mostly personified nature powers – to heavenly gods. Connected with this was a shift in the history of religion from pure cult to what is called theology.
Against this background, the author clearly rejects the delimiting ideas of a Christian Occident. Europa, the young woman abducted by Zeus, was a Phoenician from the Middle East and the daughter of an Oriental trading magnate, the author points out, referring to the cross-cultural myth. And anyone who sets out to trace the emergence of Christianity cannot avoid a journey through Syria, Egypt and Turkey, but also through Persia, Georgia and Armenia. "Christianity is an eastern religion".
In the end, Christianity prevailed in the "marketplace of religions" that was so colourful in late antiquity – the Roman pantheon of gods had lost much of its persuasive power – and adopted many ideas. The author lists a number of reasons for its success: monotheism, a historical founding figure, the promise of a happy afterlife for the individual regardless of class, high moral standards, universal orientation and the use of images as a means of propaganda.
Until well into the Middle Ages, the Christian West tended to remain the part of the world that benefited from the Orient: from Islamic scholars who passed on and expanded the knowledge of the Greeks and Romans in philosophy, astronomy, mathematics and medicine. Braun describes Islam as part of Europe, as he explains with numerous examples.
Only since the 14th century has the Orient lost its pioneering role. "Under the rule of the Ottomans, the Islamic Orient experienced a similar overreaching of religious authority that Europe was able to shake off during the Renaissance," writes the Catholic theologian. Islam hardened itself, enacted prohibitions on thought, preventing the printing of books and the building of observatories.
Europe, on the other hand, rose: separation of state and religion as well as of public and private spheres, the idea of separation of powers and increasing scientific freedom.
Braun sees the competition of ideas and markets and its taming by rules and laws as the most important motor for this development. At the same time, Europe was only now developing an idea of itself – also in view of its discoveries and conquests on other continents. (KNA)
Bernhard Braun: "Die Herkunft Europas. Eine Reise zum Ursprung unserer Kultur", Verlag Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 2022.
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